The promising young soldier who killed a Fresno, Calif., native in a Fort Benning, Ga., barracks could eventually regain his freedom, under a new plea agreement.
In a case that ravaged several families, while it raised provocative questions about the smoking cessation drug Chantix, Army Pfc. George D.B. MacDonald has agreed to plead guilty to the unpremeditated murder of Pvt. Rick Bulmer, according to relatives and other informed individuals who declined to be identified in order to talk about the case.
The new sentence will be set by a military judge following a hearing scheduled to start at Fort Benning on Sept. 8. The plea agreement details are not yet public, though the new sentence appears likely to be on the order of multiple decades behind bars.
The plea agreement discussed Friday at a court hearing marks a bittersweet victory of sorts for MacDonald, who previously had been sentenced to life without parole following a premeditated murder conviction in 2009. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces later overturned the conviction.
MacDonald’s loved ones have stressed his rehabilitation potential, as well as his remorse for an uncharacteristically violent act they attribute to Chantix side effects, though both his defense attorney and a relative declined to discuss the case publicly on Friday.
But Bulmer’s family members, who still live in the Fresno area, voiced anguish and anger at the possibility of MacDonald receiving a lesser sentence.
“We’re outraged,” Wendy Smith, Bulmer’s birth mother, said Friday. “It’s a mindblower, and we don’t understand it.”
Smith and others will get a final chance to influence the sentencing at the several-day September hearing. MacDonald’s defense attorneys will present mitigation evidence, which could include character witnesses, as well as Chantix information, while prosecutors can present testimony about the impact of MacDonald’s crime, among other matters.
“He cold-bloodedly killed my son,” Smith said. “He knew what he was doing and . . . he should take his punishment.”
Bulmer’s son Rick, who attended Madera High School in California’s San Joaquin Valley, was a married 23-year-old and in his first days of Army basic training at Fort Benning on May 18, 2008. MacDonald at the time was a 19-year-old one-time Eagle Scout who had been selected for the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.
The month before, MacDonald had been prescribed Chantix to help him quit smoking.
MacDonald later said vivid nightmares and strange feelings troubled him after he starting taking the drug.
“I remember commenting to my brother that life started to feel like a video game, in that I was disconnected from my body,” MacDonald’s brother James, a soldier who was also given Chantix, wrote in a 2010 clemency request for his brother. “He agreed that he felt the same way.”
James MacDonald committed suicide in 2013.
On May 18, 2008, while Bulmer was resting on his bunk, George MacDonald arose to do laundry and slipped a 3-inch knife into his pocket. He left his room, and came to Bulmer’s bunk. He said later that he thought for about 30 seconds. Then he attacked, slashing and stabbing Bulmer more than 50 times.
“I snapped and didn’t like it,” MacDonald wrote after the killing. “I was stretched and it made me crazy.”
MacDonald’s defense attorneys sought to pin the violent outburst on Chantix, a widely prescribed drug unveiled by Pfizer in 2006.\
The FDA in 2009 imposed a “black box” warning on Chantix, citing the potential for “serious neuropsychiatric” problems, including hostility. The warning was followed by some 2,700 civil claims asserting Chantix had caused suicides, suicidal thoughts or other problems.
The military judge overseeing MacDonald’s trial, though, quashed a wide-ranging subpoena issued to Pfizer, and refused to instruct jurors on the possible defense of “involuntary intoxication.” The military appeals court ruled the latter decision was an error, leading to the recently concluded plea agreement negotiations.
“It is important to note that there is no reliable scientific evidence that Chantix causes serious neuropsychiatric events including those at issue here,” Pfizer told McClatchy in a statement last year.
In March 2015, the FDA updated the Chantix label to note that recent “studies did not show an increased risk of neuropsychiatric side effects with Chantix.” But regulators also cautioned that the studies “did not examine all types of neuropsychiatric side effects, and they had limitations that prevented us from drawing reliable conclusions.”